The somewhat surprising outcome of this game hinges largely on two things: Karl-Anthony Towns and the depleted Los Angeles Clippers. Playing without Blake Griffin and Chris Paul (who seems to just about always kill the Wolves in the fourth quarter), the Clippers had to lean heavily on DeAndre Jordan. Jordan had a big night (29 points, 16 rebounds), but the Hack-a-Jordan strategy was effective down the stretch, with Jordan going 4-for-10 from the line in the fourth. Couple that with some spectacularly ineffective offense from the Clippers bench (Brandon Bass was 5-for-5 and they still only shot 34%, due largely to Jamal Crawford’s 3-for-14 and Mo Speights 2-for-9), and you can see the broad strokes of how the Wolves hung in there long enough to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The actual snatching was done by the aforementioned Towns, who had himself a game. He scored 15 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter and tacked on 12 rebounds and 5 assists for good measure.
For a player with Towns’ diversity of skillsets — a player who can post up, make the right pass, shoot from midrange out to the 3-point line, attack in transition, catch lobs on cuts — the major task for him on the offensive side of the ball night in and night out isn’t precisely to do what he does best, but rather to concoct the correct blend of the elements. He took it easy on the 3-pointers, taking two and making one. Matched up against Jordan for much of the night, he got his midrange game going early, then started taking advantage of the Clippers’ small lineup (they started three guards) by getting the ball to Wiggins on cuts and spot-ups. As the game wore on, he ratcheted up his physicality and got some monster putbacks before finally icing the game with the go ahead bucket from the left elbow.
Interesting sidenote on the fourth quarter: In response to the Clippers’ small lineup, the Wolves eventually went small themselves, effectively moving Wiggins to the power forward spot alongside Towns and playing three guards — Kris Dunn, Tyus Jones and Zach LaVine. With that group on the floor, the oldest player was Kris Dunn, at 22 years and 307 days old.
Conspicuously absent from that list of guards was Ricky Rubio, who didn’t play in the second half after dealing with hip tightness. (And no, this is not a condition brought on by ultra skinny jeans.) In response, Jones once again made the case for himself as a capable floor general, particularly in the pick and roll with Towns where he’s a far greater threat than Rubio to score and so sucks in more defenders, allowing Towns to navigate more open space. Dunn also stepped up with one of his best performances so far. In his 25 minutes, he only had 5 points, but he added a block, a steal, 4 assists and 4 rebounds — plus he didn’t dribble the ball off his foot.
Everyone on the TNT broadcast from Chris Webber to Shaq to Kenny Smith had an opinion about this, and it could be boiled down to: the Wolves play too slow when they have this many athletically gifted young players. There may be something to this fundamental point, given that they have the youngest minutes-weighted roster in the league but play at the 25th slowest pace (96.72 possessions per game). I happen to think that Thibodeau is perhaps always going to prefer a slower pace given his history with the Bulls, but I also think he’s not just turning them loose because he doesn’t want the energy to shoot off all over the place. Right now, they’re building the conduits for that athleticism to flow naturally into. Sam Mitchell took the restrictor plates off toward the end of last season and the team got better, but I remain unconvinced that they had a path to get much better from there.
Basically, if you’re a person who thought the Oklahoma City Thunder with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were great but underachieved because Scott Brooks relied too much on letting his stars dictate the game by freelancing, you have no leg to stand on when you say Thibs should give his young stars a longer leash. I think Thibs is very cognizant that there’s really only two ways to genuinely contend in the NBA: 1.) have the best player on the planet and 2.) have a disciplined system. If you can combine those things, so much the better.
But. Let’s go with the idea that the Wolves need to speed it up. A few of the commentators bemoaning the Wolves’ pace believe they need to play Dunn and Jones more, because Rubio is too deliberate. Let’s look at that a little.
Again, the Wolves’ average pace is 96.72 possessions per game. Rubio on the court without Dunn results in 96.73 possessions per game, which isn’t surprising given that Rubio has played the lion’s share of point guard minutes (1,201). But Dunn has also played 707 minutes without Rubio and in that time the team’s pace is … 95.76 possessions per game.
Jones pushes it a bit more, eking out 97.72 possessions per game when he’s on the court without Rubio, but that’s just one more possession per game — not a huge difference. Basically, if you think pace is the problem, it comes from Thibs, not the point guard position.
Honestly, the pace being pretty consistent is a credit to the players, whether or not you think it should be faster overall. And as far as that goes with respect to Thibs, I’m going with a cooking analogy. I used to cook everything on high heat: grilled cheese, pasta, whatever. I would turn the burner on high and cook pasta in bubbling water plus end up with basically blackened grilled cheese sandwiches where the cheese wasn’t completely melted. What, thought my twentysomething self, was the point of having a high setting if you didn’t use it?
I only learned much later that it’s often better to cook things at a medium heat for longer, than crank it up to finish it off and get that nice sear on it. I think that’s what Thibs is doing: once this team is nice and seasoned, plus heated all the way through, he can turn up the heat and watch them cook.